Thursday morning, 36 year old JoAnn Cunningham appeared in the McHenry County courthouse in Woodstock and entered a plea of guilty to a single charge of first degree murder for the beating death of her son, AJ Freund.
As a part of the plea deal, the additional charges she faced have been dropped and the prosecution entered a single, edited indictment on the first degree murder charge. Those changes amounted to the removal of the words "brutal" and "heinous" which, had she been convicted on, could have lead to a sentence of natural life behind bars without parole.
Now, however, she is looking at a sentence of 20-60 years without the possibility of parole. A status hearing on sentencing is scheduled for January 30th.
In the interim time, Cunningham's defense attorneys have requested several evaluations including substance abuse and psychiatric for their client, hoping that the results of those can be used to argue for leniency in the sentencing.
AJ's father, Andrew Freund, still stands charged though there is speculation about whether or not he will enter into a plea deal as well. Prosecution has stated though that he has not been offered a plea deal. His next court date is scheduled for December 13th.
AJ's case made national headlines earlier this year after his father placed a 911 call in the morning hours of April 18th reporting that the boy was missing and had last been seen at about 9 pm the previous night when he was put to bed.
What emerged over the course of the investigation though, was a tale of abuse and failures by CPS to protect a child that lived in such squalid living conditions that a recent request to demolish the home was approved.
According to investigators, they determined that on April 15th, AJ was beaten by his parents and then placed into a cold shower for about 20 minutes. He was then returned to his bare bed, naked and wet. Later that night, he was found dead.
He was wrapped in plastic and buried in a shallow grave about 7 miles from the family home. An autopsy determined that his cause of death was blunt force trauma. Disclosed in the prosecution's statement is the fact that AJ was even found to have small circular marks on his head consistent with those found on a detachable shower head.
After Cunningham and Freund were arrested and charged in relation to AJ's death, Cunningham still attested to her innocence. She conducted several interviews with the local CBS station including one in which, when asked by the interviewer if she acknowledged responsibility for AJ's death, she responded, “No, I’d rather kill myself than hurt my child or kill my child.”
McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally spoke after the hearing to express his approval of the plea. “I’m satisfied with the plea," he said. "It’s on the most serious charge. We expect if not a life sentence, the vast majority of her life will be spent in prison.”